AUGUST CHALLENGE DAY 15
For the Silly Season I've set myself the challenge of visiting a different art exhibition on every day of the month and blogging about it.
Saturday 15 August
Exhibition: Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist
Place: Imperial War Museum
I am of the same generation as Peter Kennard. We passed our early childhood in the austerity of the 1950s before the good times returned to coincide exactly with our teens.
But rock ‘n’ roll often played against frightening world events – the Cuba Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, apartheid, the crushing of the Prague Spring. These radicalized a generation of activists, though many would soon enough shed their peacenik, ban-the-bomb, anticapitalist beliefs. Kennard, however, is one of those who kept the faith and has effectively dedicated his career as an artist to promoting radical pacifism and socialism.
This small retrospective show begins with some examples of his long series of prints called Stop, begun when Kennard, who trained as a painter, began to make his signature photomontages, always on a political themes. The images came from published photographs, sometimes overlaid and interleaved, sometimes isolated, with the deliberate intention of forcing the viewer to make an effort to see and understand. The one illustrated is a clearer image than many. It dates from 1970 and my guess is it’s Kennard’s response to the killing of students by police at Kent State University in May that year. He would not have been the only artist to be affected by that event: both Rita Donagh’s and Richard Hamilton’s take on it are on display at the moment in Tate Britain’s Fighting History show. Kennard’s is starker and I think more moving.
Later his cut-and-paste method became clearer, easier to read in a single look, as he increasingly put himself at the service of agit-prop, an art that needs to be highly legible in a single take. Kennard’s work was now gaining exposure in much the same way as a political cartoonist’s does, and this is what he became to some extent. His images began to appear in the papers, particularly under the masthead of the New Statesman. One of these montages showed Thatcher as Queen Victoria, a brilliantly simple idea. Another had the unforgettable image of Kissinger with the American flag in one side of his glasses, a burning Vietnamese child in the other and a B52 bomber ghosting across his forehead..
The CND was always Kennard’s favourite cause, or it seems from the proliferation of missiles in his work. Blackjack is played with rockets for chips, they spew from the mouthpiece of a gas mask, a clock has them for hands, hands have them for fingers and, most famously of all, Constable’s Hay Wain, becomes a mobile launch-pad.
Kennard is more of the established master these days – he is Senior Tutor at the Royal College of Art. A marvellous set of 21st century works is in the show, called Face. Spooky, elusive, they are oil paintings of what could be faces or could be masks.
A final section of the exhibition shows an “Artist’s Room”, Boardroom. This is new work, created by Kennard as if to sum up his lifelong concerns. It is hung with the visiting cards of corporations that make profits from war, backed up by many of Kennard’s old agit-prop images, and a lot of unsavoury statistics.
Kennard’s collages were different in their day because they often aimed, and often succeeded, at concealing the fact that they were “made up”. This distinguishes him from earlier collagistes such as Kurt Schwitters. These days with Photoshop the smooth blending of disparate images to new effect is so easy as to be laughable. Kennard worked with the cruder tools of scissors and paste, but he used them with great power and sophistication.
Eating pennies – poster for G8 summit 2013